Humans have been participating in the practice of ritualistic burial for tens of thousands of years. Archaeologists can trace intentional burial back to 65,000 years ago, and the proto-neolithic cemeteries of the ‘flower people’ found in the Shanidar caves in Iraq which comprised of 35 graves littered with flowers, trace back to 11,000 years ago. It is this find that is thought to be the birth of burial rituals (although the nature of anthropology and archaeology always allow for debate on such issues). Over this vast chasm of time death rituals have grown alongside every other aspect of our ever evolving cultural beliefs.
But our process(es) of dealing with loss are rooted in essentially the same ideology; where do we go when we die, and how do we guarantee our safe delivery there? Humans possess a trait that most other animals do not (aside from, most notably, elephants; they extensively mourn their dead) and that trait is empathy. We feel for those who have passed and their loved ones and this feeling transcends religion, culture, space and time.
From the ritualistic and respectful endocannibalistic death practices of the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea to the mummification of great Pharaoh in Egypt, we have found ways to send our dead into the next life with blessings and gifts, or desecrate and bury them in ways thought to trap their souls or damn them to Hades. From a young age many are raised to see death in a negative light. We cannot accept what we don’t understand so we avoid the subject of death altogether. But it is this sentiment that has pushed us to find ways to ensure a wonderful journey for those we love into the afterlife. This has led to our practice of death rituals and different (often opposing) ways to mourn, celebrate and honor those who have passed whether they journey to Heaven, Xibalba, return as a turtle or go nowhere at all.
I firmly believe in the return to a culture where we are more comfortable with death, specifically in the Western world. But the only way to do that is to create an awareness of the way other cultures experience and deal with loss and I was inspired to create a vessel for this information that was different than any other I had seen before; I decided to make a pop-up book. I felt that softening the blow of discussing death in the type of book associated with childhood innocence seemed like a much more comfortable and easy to digest experience for a reader. It is also more inviting for children who are often denied exposure to what death truly is and what it really means. I am a huge advocate for discussing loss with young people at an early age so that when the time comes and a loved one passes the experience will not be riddled with confusion.
In my book The Little Book of Burial I create a playful hands on experience that sheds light on different burial practices across the globe. It is also an exploration of the evolution of burial and I touch on rituals that are no longer practiced but are very iconic and recognisable to us. Every interactive page is accompanied by a map of the region where the ritual is practiced. I feel that the ability to associate the ritual with a geographic location creates an all encompassing experience and humanizes the information.
In the book I explore the Norse burials of Icelandic Sagas, illuminating the poetry behind the beautiful burning ship funerals of the Vikings. Although not all Norse Burials involved the release of the ship into the oceans and the element of fire, it is most familiar to many because of popular shows like Vikings and Game of Thrones so I chose to include it in the book. Familiarity creates comfort for people in what may be an uncomfortable experience. In truth, most Norsemen feared death to extreme extents. Their association with aggressive behavior is juxtaposed by their sensitivity in burying their dead, taking the utmost care in providing peace for the deceased in the afterlife. They cared for their dead, preparing them for the afterlife by trimming their nails, their hair and dressing them in their finest. Much of these rituals are documented in beautiful runestones, a common way to record history in Norse culture.
My brief discussion of cremation in Varanasi, India along the Ganges River, the most sacred place on earth to be cremated, does the richness of the practice little justice as I would need an excessive number of pages to truly enlighten the reader on every aspect of the Hindu religion’s teachings about death. But by explaining that in Hinduism death is purely physical and the soul lives on after the host expires makes the image of a burning body less intimidating.The dead are brought from far and wide, making one last journey to Varanasi before their ultimate journey into the afterlife where it will be decided in what form they will return to the physical world. Reincarnation is the foundation of Hindu religion regarding life after death. One’s actions on earth, their karma, will dictate whether they return as a bird, a cow, an ant or a human. The highest achievement is that of Nirvana when one no longer returns to earth but permanently ascends to the heavens, something few but Siddhartha were thought to attain.
I also highlight the very accessible locations of Native American burial mounds in the U.S. including the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. Now a Natural Historic Landmark, the Cahokia Mounds are dated back to the ninth century A.D, and the most excavated mound, Mound 72, contained 250 bodies thought to have been sacrificed. Burial Mounds are very common in Native American culture and the hard work, transporting endless baskets of dirt for extensive amounts of time, just out of respect for the dead, is breathtaking to consider.
And what would this book be without discussing the origin of the now traditional garden cemetery. Found in Paris, France, Pere Lachaise Cemetery opened in 1804. The cemetery is home to the likes of Oscar Wilde. Moliere, the beautiful Edith Piaf and many other famous men and women. It also houses a gorgeous ossuary named Aux Mortes meaning To the Dead. If you are ever in Paris, this cemetery is one of my favorite places to spend the afternoon and you shouldn’t visit the city without stopping by.
My pride and joy of this project, despite my fascination with every ritual, is the interactive sarcophagus and papyrus scroll I created to discuss mummification in ancient Egypt. I recreated a simplified burial including tiny hand cut canopic jars for the deceased’s organs and even a little mummy cat to keep the dead company in the afterlife.
As a pursuant of a career in physical anthropology and bioarchaeology, the study of death and our emotional relationship with the dead throughout time is the most fascinating of all subjects to me and the root of my passion for my research. There is so much importance in the acquisition of knowledge about how other cultures deal with death and mourning. Exposure to other practices can aid us in feeling comfortable with our own choices and preferences regarding what we want done with us when our time comes and prompts us to be open about our desires before it’s too late. With the dream of having it published, I hope that despite the simplicity of my Little Book of Burial, it can be a little light in the darkness many find themselves in when discussing death. In my research for this project I stumbled upon the Tibetan practice of sky burial and it has completely changed the way I feel about where our bodies should go when we expire. I am a strong believer in the idea that humans should have a very symbiotic relationship with their environment, one of total reciprocity.
In Tibetan sky burial the dead are mourned, cleansed, wrapped in cloth and taken out into the open air of the Tibetan mountains where they are dismembered and offered up to the Himalayan Griffon and other carrion birds. These birds consume the body of the deceased, releasing the soul to begin its journey into the next life. I left this out if the book as I couldn’t find a way to truly represent it without it being graphic, but the beauty of this ritual is in the Tibetan’s connectedness to the earth and their understanding that one must give back to receive and maintain balance in our universe. Ideally, I would love this to be the way my body is disposed of after my passing. But societal confines and cultural differences would make that a near impossibility. It is situations like this that inspire me to open the minds of those around me to the wonders of burial rituals across continents in hopes that my wish to be buried in the skies would not seem so strange when my time comes.